Friday, June 22, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine and American Optimism

Is the incredibly wicked satire of last year's independent film hit
Little Miss Sunshine accessible to non-Americans? I wonder.

Do other cultures breed a hyper-competitive drive for "number one" rankings in everything from piloting USAF jets to talent contests to wealth and recognition on the motivational circuit to academic studies of Proust? Do other cultures quickly label everyone who competes but doesn't win "a loser"? Do other cultures heap such lopsided praise on "winners" and offer so little to the "rest of us" that suicide (at least in this film) seems like a better alternative than slipping in the rankings? I honestly don't know, but I suspect not.

In the event other cultures may be mystified by the dark humor and rapier-like parody in this film, I offer up the following as context for understanding this justifiably popular movie.

I am not immune to competitive juices, so I say this not as a smarmy putdown of competition but to draw the distinction between the honor implicit in competing and the pathological emphasis now placed on "winning" "the top spot" in American society. I played on basketball teams for five years in junior and high school and a year of football in 10th grade (hard-working talentless benchwarmer, but hey, I had fun being part of the teams), and I was a contractor/carpenter in the deep recession of the early 80s.

You want a "Darwinian fight to the death?" That was the "interest rate is 16%, nobody's building anything" reality then. And if you want a competition where winning is literally one shot in a million--try writing. 30 million blogs (or is it 300 million?), 5,000 novels published each year, 100,000 books in print, blah blah blah. The point is: has our society veered into a pathology of winning, in which parents are punching Little League coaches and screaming at little kids for not scoring more than their opponents?

This film says yes, definitely, categorically, yes.

Critics generally describe this as a comedy about a dysfunctional family. It isn't that at all; it's a biting critique of a dysfunctional society.

The family is actually the only source of support and solace available to the beleagered individuals depicted in the film as they each strive--and painfully fail to reach--the pinnacle of the American Dream: success through hard work and meritocracy.

The banality of this goal is ruthlessly satirized as the movie progresses. Every conceivable form of American Success with a Capital S is savagely revealed as distorting and empty.

The wholesome Dad swears under his breath as his dream of a motivational-speaker-writer empire crumbles before him; his family is disgusted by his hollow cheerleader motivational patter--the soundtrack, if you will, of the American Dream.

The acerbic grandfather shoots heroin to control his various aches and pains, and rudely defines success as having sex with as many women as possible (hey, it worked for JFK, Bill Clinton and innumerable "sports heroes")--a crass, unwholesome portrayal of the "real American Dream"-- or at least the male one.

The harried, chain-smoking mother is frayed by the insuperable demands of holding the family together while she puts fast-food on the table and rescues her mentally unstable brother.

Her brother, an openly gay aspiring academic superstar, is suicidal because another academic has replaced him as the number one Proust scholar--and snagged his gay lover to boot.

The son, who has taken a vow of silence to express his open hatred of his family, single-mindedly works out in order to achieve his goal of being accepted to the Air Force Academy and becoming a pilot. His dreams are dashed by a weakness beyond his control, and he is inconsolable.

The slightly chubby daughter pursues her dream of winning a sickeningly saccharine talent contest in California, "Little Miss Sunshine." Despite its wholesome veneer, the entire contest is deeply subversive of childhood, a bizarre distortion in which girls are made up to look like small adult women and perform "Miss America" type song-and-dance routines.

The daughter's painfully bawdy routine--a searing exaggeration of the contest's subtext of pushing adulthood onto little girls--draws predictable howls of outrage from the contest authorities, and rallies the family to her side.

When Granddad unexpectedly passes away, the American bureaucracy takes a mirthful beating as the family is forced to sneak the body out of the hospital and load it in their decrepit VW van.

Though other bits of American life get similarly skewered, the key satire is of The American Dream: wealth and recognition achieved via hard work and "pursuing your dreams." As the wheels fall off the U.S. and global economies, I have to wonder how Americans will adapt to the narrowing of opportunities and the ever-tightening strictures of debt and job losses.

I wonder if they will begin to understand the myths they bought into and clung to so tenaciously as their plight deepened, ("the Ownership Society funded by leveraged debt", for instance) and realise that if they bothered to vote (recall that U.S. voter turnout is a miserable 40% compared to 80% in France and other well-established democracies), they might regain the political power which they have so passively ceded in their individual obsession with competitive triumph and public recognition.

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